It’s not an easy task keeping the environment green, but DroneSeed is making it more manageable. The service provider works with forestry agencies, non-profits, and governmental agencies to help restore fire-ravaged areas using...  drones. When they had to get a large fleet of drones out on the field, DroneSeed turned to 3D Hubs to quickly scale up their manufacturing production.

DroneSeed retrofits drones to drop seed vessels in the scorched soil so that they can develop and also flourish in their native environment. “The company’s biggest goal is to boost seed survival so that we can maximize post-fire responses and get the greatest survival rate before invasive species come in,” explains Grant Canary, CEO.

Their services require a whole team of hardware engineers, scientists, and software developers. Their custom drone also needs a lot of custom parts and many modifications during the design process.

In this post, we will see how DroneSeed solved this problem using 3D printing and how 3D Hubs helped them scale up their production to build a whole fleet.

The Breakdown
Organization DroneSeed
Location Seattle, USA
Product Forestland Analysis, Planting and Protection via drone
Industry Precision Forestry
Why 3D Hubs? Low costs, high capacity
Technology 3D printing (FDM, MJF)
Materials PLA, Nylon, Carbon Fiber

A Constant Improvement Process

“There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to reforesting,” says John Thomson, senior drone systems engineer at DroneSeed. “Because the applications are so unique for each client, DroneSeed uses a mix of off-the-shelf and custom parts.”

“The parts we buy off the shelf are things like the composite fuselage, which would be very complex for us to manufacture ourselves,” Thomson says. This comes mainly from a business perspective since DroneSeed’s aim is to be a service provider and not a drone manufacturer.

DroneSeed’s goal is to create drones that have as little downtime between flights as possible and follow more of a NASCAR pitstop servicing model in-between trips. With their operators handling the drones with work gloves – instead of kid gloves – the material needs to be able to accrue minimal damage. Developing parts for these drones is a constant improvement process.

Sometimes, Thomson says that they’ll discover poor part performance before manufacturing. Other times, “it's discovered as a pain-point for our operators or as a rapidly wearing component that needs maintenance too often. In those cases, we will design the improvement in CAD, print the limited prototypes on our in-house printers out of PLA and issue a retrofit to the fleet during the next maintenance cycle.”

Complex Parts, Straightforward Manufacturing

To produce its drone and payload components, DroneSeed uses a mix of in-house manufacturing tools as well as working with 3D Hubs to outfit its fleets. The materials and processes make sure that everything meets strength and weight requirements while allowing engineers to design one-of-a-kind components.

According to Thomson, it takes about an average of two months to ready a fully customized payload solution from initial work order to completed design. With such a tight turnaround, rapid prototyping technologies are essential to meet deadlines.

In order to meet all of these requirements, DroneSeed uses two main materials: PLA and MJF Nylon. The company generally defaults to PLA, due to its flexibility and low cost, Thomson says.

It turns out PLA has some pretty great mechanical properties. We don’t usually have to deal with high temperatures, but we have a couple of situations where our parts have to deal with high-temperature environments,” he explains.

“In general, we’re able to leverage PLA for a lot of the initial stuff, and when we conclude that we need a little bit higher performance material, then we’ll jump over to MJF.”

With the high number of completely custom parts, the company uses Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) to produce prototypes. Doing so helps minimize costs, lets engineers pick from a wide range of materials, easily design complex components and produce parts faster.

“We design our components so that everything has a specific wall thickness to get the balance between strength and weight,” Thomson explains. He also adds that when working with PLA, it’s important to stiffen the part by adding extra supports or struts. That way, it is ready to go once it’s off the print bed.

To keep the drones robust, no additional finishing is needed; the basic finishes are smooth enough. The mechanical strength is more important.

Scaling Up... Up and Away!

3D Hubs helps support the manufacturing for fleets of anything that isn’t done in-house. While having a tight turnaround is great for as-needed parts, the volume is something that just isn’t possible in-house.

“We have a handful of MakerBots and a laser cutter, but that’s only going to be able to cut it for limited, extremely tight turnaround prototyping,” says Thomson. With so many active fleets, the amount of required parts quickly multiplies beyond the in-house capacities.

The average DroneSeed swarm has five drones. Each drone alone can have up to 70 individual 3D printed components, totalling to about 350 parts for a whole fleet. Using 3D Hubs allowed DroneSeed to get parts quickly and at the right price immediately at scale.

For one project “we got about 125 pieces of a 10-hr part printed with a two week lead time, while simultaneously ordering over 100 other assorted parts.”

With 3D Hubs offering a wide range of manufacturing technologies, DroneSeed was able to find an alternative to injection molding, which was too expensive and time-consuming to use at their current scale.

“As we verify our initial designs, the 3D printers are fine, but the moment we start going into outfitting a full fleet -- forget it,” Thomson says. “3D Hubs has been pivotal. Being able to affordably leverage FDM processes on a tight schedule let us get out to the field with our tech in a way that probably wouldn't have been possible otherwise.”